Saunders Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill became “Carolina Hall” on Thursday, when the university’s Board of Trustees stripped the name of purported 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders.
The board’s 10-3 vote followed about a year of deliberation after student activists demanded the name change. Protesters stood by Thursday with signs calling the building “Hurston Hall,” their preferred name that would have honored African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Calling Thursday’s action a comprehensive solution, the trustees voted unanimously on two other resolutions – a 16-year freeze on the renaming of other buildings, and a broad effort to curate UNC’s history with accurate markers and the possibility of a permanent historical collection somewhere on campus. Task forces will begin to work on those issues, including the idea of an online orientation program for students to learn about UNC’s history.
Trustees said they struggled with the controversial issue, and some who voted for the change said they were initially inclined not to erase a piece of history from the university landscape. But they said the trustees in 1920 erred in their decision to name the classroom building for him, specifically citing Saunders as “head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina” as a qualification for naming.
The current board had the obligation to right the past board’s wrong, said trustee Alston Gardner.
“We’re not changing history, we’re not rewriting it,” he said. “We’re shining a bright light on it.”
Voting against the name change were Haywood Cochrane, Peter Grauer and Dwight Stone.
“Some of us chose not to focus on a name only, but more fully on our history – good, bad and sometimes very ugly – and combining that with our university’s mission to teach our history, to learn from it, to let it show us how far we’ve come, but also to let us understand how far we need to go,” Cochrane said, speaking on behalf of the dissenters. “This history is ours. We can’t change it, we can’t distance ourselves from it.”
A historical marker will be placed on the building, explaining contributions by Saunders, a UNC graduate and trustee who was secretary of state in North Carolina from 1879 to 1891 and a collector of Colonial-era records. He also was an editor at the Raleigh Observer newspaper, which would eventually become The News & Observer.
The new Carolina Hall plaque will invoke a famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lux Libertas. UNC Board of Trustees 2015.”
Trustee Chairman Lowry Caudill said the choice of Carolina Hall was important and called it “a unifying name.”
Students who wore black T-shirts that said “#HurstonHall” said the new name was innocuous, but not unifying. They plan to continue calling it Hurston Hall, honoring the writer who once studied unofficially at UNC.
“It wasn’t a request; it was a demand,” said Nathan Swanson, a graduate student in geography, which is housed in the building. “So it’s still Hurston Hall to us, and we’re continuing to celebrate that and to honor that.”
Added fellow graduate student Rachel Cotterman: “We feel it’s a really important statement to name the building after a woman of color as a way of honoring students of color on campus.”
Swanson said the 16-year renaming ban was silly. “It is very much a reflection of this willingness to want to end the conversations that are happening about race on campus,” he said.
Gardner congratulated student activists for their perseverance but added: “Now I hope you direct your passion on more substantial issues.”
Trustee Chuck Duckett said he would have liked to ask the late UNC basketball coach Dean Smith his advice on the issue, but instead turned to Smith’s pastor, Bob Seymour. Smith and Seymour worked to integrate Chapel Hill.
“He said, ‘Chuck, the name over the door is not important. Who welcomes you through that door is,’” Duckett said. “We all need to be there to welcome any that come to this university and through that door.”
Duckett urged students to keep learning history on campus and beyond.
“We are imperfect,” he said. “Good people have done things that are incorrect or wrong. Yet we evolve.”